Friday, May 4, 2012
Fred loves his dilapidated house on fictitious Rue Orleans. He loves the dusty air and shares its nightly creaks and moans. There could not be a better house for a ghost in all of The Big Easy. But Fred’s good times are interrupted when Pierre and his daughter Marie burst in and transform his old haunt into a jazzy Cajun restaurant.
This book is a delightful look at the difficulty in dealing with change. It offers readers a great representation of the nostalgia invested in familiar things and the difficulty of letting them go. For a city still reeling from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, The Hungry Ghost of Rue Orleans offers a positive perspective toward building great things out of ruin.
Patricia Castelao’s colorful illustrations capture the charming ambiance of New Orleans, depicting in shadows the surrounding neighborhood reminiscent of the infamous French Quarter. Other pictures stretch across the pages in throngs of diverse faces dining over white bowls of richly hued gumbo. All the while, the ghostly presence of Fred still remains in focus in opaque creams and blues amidst the vividness of the surrounding colors. It is truly a respective nod toward the charm and ambiance of The Big Easy.
Thursday, May 3, 2012
If Delacorte Press played in March Madness, I’d pick them as a winning seed in my bracket. With Joe Lansdale’s novel All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky, Delacorte wins again.
Jack, Jane, and her younger brother Tony are orphaned in Oklahoma during the dust storms of the Great Depression. Armed with sixteen dollars and a “borrowed” Ford, they head out into the world: staying put means a slow starvation; moving out affords them at least a chance to live. Along their way, they get tangled up with bank-robbing gangsters, a slave-driving pea farmer/sheriff, and various other dubious characters. In what I’ve read so far from them, Delacorte never shies away from tackling tough issues in a respectable way. Their authors give kids adult responsibilities: Jack’s parents die in the first two pages; he’s buried them in the barn by the third page—no use wasting any time! Jack realizes that when the bank confiscates the property, the bank will own his parents’ bodies, but he says, “I had always been taught it wasn’t the body that mattered, it was the life inside it. That life was long gone now.” In my opinion, that’s tough stuff for a teenager, but it’s dealt with in an appropriate and mature way.
After losing his parents, Jack considers suicide, but decides against it, rationalizing: “I wanted to be like the heroes in books I had read about, who could stand up against anything and keep on coming.” This sentiment inaugurates a prevailing theme throughout the book: reading itself has power. Time and again, the characters, particularly Jane, compare themselves to heroes in books and draw inspiration to persevere. At one point, Jack picks up a book of poems, forming the words with his mouth, enjoying the way it feels to read; it almost works like a therapy of sorts in time of crisis. Frequently, when the trio meets new people, Jane makes up stories. When one older woman catches her in a lie, she asks Jane why she makes up stories when the truth is strange enough? Sometimes, however, the fiction is easier to bear than the facts. We see Jane accept the truth of their situation when she introduces them truthfully (and the new person dismisses it as falsehood!). Ultimately, she finds her destiny inextricably linked with her stories, but in an unexpected way: rather than making up stories, she writes down what she observes in the world around her.
Lansdale writes with an exquisite voice, giving detail and description in an Oklahoma dialect without compromising readability for young readers. For example, Jack muses about the prevalence of death: “It was the sort of thing that stunned you at the same time it made you feel as empty as a corn crib after the rats had been in it.” About Jane’s tall tales, he says, “She went on painting the barn, so to speak, when there wasn’t no need for paint, or for that matter, when the paint bucket was empty.” The affection between the three hits the reader with a poignancy. Jack develops an attraction to Jane for all the “right” reasons: she’s pretty, she has a pleasant voice, she’s smart, and she smells good. The developing romance is age-appropriate and tasteful. When a swarm of grasshoppers eats the entire backside of her pants, Jack ties what the grasshoppers left behind of his shirt around Jane's waist to cover her exposed rear end. The pair kiss twice, and although the trio spends many nights sleeping together, sex never arises as a remote possibility. While Jack and Jane’s affections for one another play an important role in their character development within the novel, the tale definitely is not a love story. The ending makes clear that growing up means moving on: Tony gets adopted by a kindly older widow, Jane finds her way as a writer out west, and Jack joins up as a carnival worker.
Lansdale’s novel serves not only as an enjoyable insight into the Great Depression through the eyes of children, but also as a timeless study of perseverance, spunk, and adolescence.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012
The first-person narrator of this bright and lively book is a cat who speculates about all the traits it would pick (or not pick) in a human best friend: playing games with a paper bag, not dropping it to see if cats land on their feet, etc. The author obviously knows cats intimately—when I got to the page about a best friend who would scratch “Ooh aaah! The base of my tail. Right there!” I could imagine my cat Oogie purring from head to tail-tip.
Besides being good entertainment for any cat-loving child (and what child isn’t?), A Cat Like That is an excellent reminder to preschoolers about how to treat the family pet. Many of the characteristics the narrator would seek in its best friend are actually warnings against negative behavior, stated in a positive way: for example, “My friend would let me hide in my secret place…and dine in peace…” Other remarks emphasize the happiness and attachment a cat shares with its ideal best friend, like sending kisses by blinking eyes.
The nimble drawings look deceptively simple, with whimsical spirals, flowers, and spiky curls—they capture the playful yet respectful relationship of an inquisitive, affectionate human with a cool, whiskery, clawed and furry friend. The poster colors are big on orange, blue, purple and yellow. Altogether, the book attracts both child and adult like a friendly but self-possessed cat looking the reader in the eye, hoping for a better acquaintance.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Part of Scholastic’s “Discover More” line of books, which all come with a link and a code to read more and learn more from a downloadable digital book, See Me Grow shows the baby stages of several different kinds of animals. The first page outlines what makes the book a good choice for young readers – picture sequences, small words, and short sentences. What follows are 12 different kinds of animal babies and interesting trivia about each. The child reader will learn that baby bunnies are called kittens, that a foal can stand up and walk around within minutes of being born, and that baby birds are born blind, among other tidbits. Oddly enough, while puppies get a section, there is no mention of those other kittens, those of the feline variety.
This is a simple, easy-to-read book with straightforward facts. It’s a good start for a basic knowledge of baby animals. There is no mention of how babies are made, only that they come from either eggs or tummies. There are plenty of full-color photographs of cute baby animals along with fascinating shots of fish eggs and shark-egg-pouches. A nice little book for a kid who wants to know more about baby animals.
Monday, April 30, 2012
Bubblegum really doesn't take up much thought, unless you're trying to decide what flavor to grab at the check-out line. There is, however, a lot more to bubblegum than a person might think, and author and illustrator Meghan McCarthey uses Pop! The Invention of Bubblegum to describe gum's development through the centuries and how it became the multi-hued, bubble-blowing, sticky-sweet thing we chew today.
The story begins in the 1920s with the true-life, central figure Walter Diemer who works as an accountant in the Fleer family's factory. The factory produces lots of gum and candy, but the gum isn't like it is today. The Fleer family decides they want to make their product different from any other type of gum: They wanted it to make bubbles. This though, is no easy process, and Walter watches as scientist after scientist goes by his office to work on the secret project. Walter isn't a scientist, but he is very curious. One day, when Walter's boss asks him to mind a kettle containing a gum experiment, Walter can’t just watch. Soon he starts adding ingredients but nothing really changes.
Eventually, Walter's boss gives up on making bubble gum, but Walter doesn’t stop. Months after everyone else has given up, one of Walter's experiments starts bubbling. There is only one problem, the gum quickly turns hard and is a less than appealing, oozy brown color. Even more months go by until Walter can figure out a recipe that stays soft, but he succeeds, but the gum is still an unappetizing brown. Walter grabs the nearest dye and pours it in—it’s pink.
The first batch produced is cut into five pieces and delivered to a small store nearby. And, before long, gum is sold in stores across the country; according to Walter Diemer, the little pink cubes of gum, named Dubble Bubble, are what saves the company. While Walter never makes a lot of money off of his invention, he is promoted to vice president of the Fleer family business, a position he keeps until he retires.
Not only does McCarthy tell the recent history of bubblegum, she also works in the historical aspects of bubblegum, or, up until that point, plain old gum. While Walter wonders what is going on with the experiments, McCarthy takes the opportunity to tell how ancient Greeks chewed sap from the mastic tree (think “to masticate”) and American Indians introduced spruce tree resin. Also of interest are the facts about Walter Diemer and gum that fill the last two pages of the book. For instance, I never knew that college-educated women in their thirties, not children, chew the most gum! Or that chewing gum non-stop for a full year will make you lose eleven pounds!
Author's Web Page
Activities for Pop! The Invention of Bubblegum